We’re vacationing in Burgundy, in the hilly country southeast of Dijon. But a writer is never truly on vacation, so I find myself constantly on the look out for ways I might describe this glorious place if I were to use it in a story. Setting? Well, yes, but what is that to a writer; how does one start? Do I simply sketch this three-hundred-year-old farmhouse, rough in some French countryside, and – Voila! Done. And then get on with the real business of plot? Too often, setting is accomplished in just this way: setting as mere backdrop. When I read that kind of thing, I recall grade-school plays in which the gray rocky shore, blue ocean and HMS Pinafore, sitting in the middle distance, have been painted by Mrs. Clayborne’s seventh-grade art students. Setting must be something more, something teased into the fabric of story, not plunked down and dismissed with.
What if I start like this: He poured a glass of blood-orange juice, cloudy with its bittersweet secret, and stepped out into the yard. This sentence obviously does not describe a place but one might say it is an entry to “somewhere else.” Les oranges sanguines don’t grow in Bourgogne – more likely Spain or Sicily — but I have never drunk blood-orange juice anywhere and so a tiny bit of literary transportation is accomplished by this simple gesture of pouring a glass of it and taking a moment to describe its flavor. But, you might say, isn’t that atmosphere rather than setting? Possibly. But, at best, atmosphere is inextricably wrapped up in place, isn’t it? Let’s start out like that anyway, and then push our imaginary character a little further into the yard.
He walked out past the blue ceramic pot of sage by the cottage door, across the gravel, past the wisteria to the orchard. He had brought a basket to pick blackberries that were newly ripe on the bramble down by the swimming pool.
At home in Ontario we grow sage in our garden. But the blue ceramic pot feels nicely “elsewhere.” And, for me, the wisteria is also exotic. Depending on the story I wanted to write, I might find a moment to describe the grasping roots of the wisteria, the dangling velvety seed pods that I find disturbingly like something from a horror story. But I won’t talk about that now; now, my character is only collecting blackberries. If he’s got something on his mind (plot) maybe some of that will come out as interior monologue. And then his thoughts might be interrupted by a noise from the house that will draw his attention back that way. Here would be a chance to describe the shuttered dormers set in the red clay tiles, the crumbling distemper, revealing old yellow brick. Distemper? That’s an art school term I remember. I’ll have to find out what these walls are really made of. My host calls it rendering, which doesn’t really help describe it; limewash does. For now I’ll call it that. Limwash is slaked limestone, says Google. Sounds good, but it will take research to get the exactly right word.
The sound is thunder and not thunder. He looks up, out across the valley, doesn’t see the source of the explosion, but knows what it is: a jet breaking the sound barrier. A Mirage.
The French Air Force practices low-level flying in these parts. That’s not likely something you’d find in a pretty coffee-table book about Bourgogne. But can this be called setting? Not exactly, but what I’m trying to do here is integrate setting and atmosphere and revelation of character into the actual telling of the story, rather than relegating it to some info-dump paragraph. In the end, maybe all I’ve done is start some kind of objective correlative. Are the blood orange, the sage in its blue pot, the wisteria and the sound-barrier-breaking jet all ways of objectively painting in the emotional landscape of this blackberry picking as yet unnamed character?
Detail is the life-blood of good fiction. The gite is worthy of more vivid description, but I will weave it in, as need be. For this blog let me just explain that it is the cottage-end of a one-hundred-foot-long, farm-worker’s cottage/barn/shed, which the present tenant, my hard-working cousin, has, over twenty years, turned into an exquisite warren of rooms with shuttered windows and oak beams. (The oak is infested with deathwatch beetles. Fabulous! Well, not for the owners, but as an exquisite detail.)
Detail. Maybe, upon returning to the house, his basket full of blackberries, my character will run his finger along the inexpertly carved inscription in the sandstone lintel over the low door. “F19, 1786.” Does the “F” stand for Février, the month and date that the stone was laid? No one here can say for sure, but the sandstone grit on my finger is the very thing I want to write into every story.